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September 2017

Castle Made of Sand

By Steve Eubanks

Having already experienced success with golf courses on both coasts, the Keiser family is looking to add a third victory to its resume with Sand Valley Golf Resort in the tiny town of Rome, Wisconsin

No matter what your business, when you hit a home run in your first at-bat, the follow-up is always a challenge. Remember NeXt computers? Probably not. Steve Jobs’ second tech company didn’t have quite the pop of Apple. J.D. Salinger wrote a few magazine short stories before “The Catcher in the Rye” in 1951, but didn’t write another book after. Success and the weight of expectations not only kept Salinger from another novel, according to those who knew him, it drove him, quite literally, mad. 

There are some two-hit wonders. Suzanne Vega and the anthem-rock group Boston come to mind—although the latter had two hit albums with multiple charting songs on each. But with each new success, the burden of the next project living up to the last grows greater.

In golf, there’s always a temptation to try to replicate the magic of that one successful venture, to apply the same principals and philosophies a second and third time in the hopes of striking gold again. Rarely does it work. Whether it’s timing or location or the fact that what was new and different at your first club has become routine by the time you open the second or third, recapturing the “wow” of that first home run is far more difficult than hitting the homer in the first place. 

That was the worry within the Keiser family. When Mike Keiser opened Bandon Dunes in the spring of 1999, he had no idea if anyone would venture to middle-of-nowhere Oregon for golf, especially since there would be no carts and no lavish spa-and-waterpark-like amenities. Bandon was pure golf. Keiser, who had made a fortune in the greeting card business, wanted an experience on the West Coast of the United States that rivaled some of the great links courses of Scotland and Ireland.   

“It’s funny,” says Michael Keiser, Mike’s son. “Going back to Bandon, which my dad built, questions like, ‘What’s the universe of walking golfers?’ and, ‘What’s the distance from a major airport that someone will drive for walking golf?’ Things that a rational businessman might ask, dad didn’t spend the money to have answered, in part because he thought the numbers were small, but also because he felt like learning those numbers, answering those questions, would discourage him from building Bandon.

“Had we done any market surveys or hired any consultants, they would have told dad he was crazy,” he continues. “So, we haven’t worried about doing any pro forma research on how many walking golfers are out there or how many people will travel to the ends of the earth with their friends to play golf.”

Bandon now has four of the greatest links golf courses in the world, along with a par-3 course that has received rave reviews. The resort is on every serious golfer’s bucket list. 

So, the Keisers did it a second time, opening Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs on the western edge of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia (a three-plus-hour drive from Halifax), one of the most beautiful stretches of the Atlantic coast. Once again, the breathtaking scenery and golf courses that have been almost universally praised made the projects work, although even the Keisers admit that Cabot hasn’t achieved the acclaim—or the numbers—that they’ve had at Bandon. 

This summer, the family went for a three-peat with their biggest experiment of all: Sand Valley near the tiny town of Rome, Wisconsin, about a 90-minute drive north of Madison, two-and-a-half hours from Milwaukee and four hours by car from Chicago.    

“Our success in the past has come from a simple formula: sand, site (along with a genius architect) and ocean,” says Michael, who runs Sand Valley for the family. “Up here we had two of the three, but no ocean. But as we restored the land by removing the pine crop, we realized that we had an ocean—it was just be an ocean of sand, flowers and prairie crops.

“What has emerged from the dormant soil has exceeded our expectations,” he adds. “The plant life and the views of the sand dunes is not just beautiful, it’s rare. When people arrive here, they say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ When you’re here, you’ll see landscapes that you can’t find anywhere else.” 

So, the Keiser philosophy evolved. No longer is the model for a hit, site, architecture, a commitment to golf purity, and an ocean. Now, the model is site, architecture, purity of the game, and views you can’t find anywhere else in the Americas. 

“It starts with the product,” Michael explains. “We’re passionate about the type of golf course we build, whether it’s at Bandon or Cabot or here at Sand Valley. We think that a course like Sand Valley modeled after some of the heathland courses around London is cool.

“When we played those great courses like Sunningdale, Swinley Forest and Walton Heath, we thought that if we could make something like that available to the public [in America], we hoped and prayed that they would enjoy it and come back,” he adds. “It was really no deeper than that. When it comes to demographic models, it really is that kind of ‘If you build it they will come’ prayer. So far, they’ve come. We just hope that continues.”   

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

 

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